Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a key member of the Senate Democratic leadership, walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, as the Senate prepares to vote on a short-term funding measure that includes dollars for disaster relief without an offsetting spending cut elsewhere, as demanded by the GOP-controlled House.
WASHINGTON - A bitterly divided and poll-battered Congress has nearly worked its way out of a nasty fight over disaster aid, but only by abruptly abandoning efforts to immediately refill almost empty federal disaster relief accounts.
Instead, with the administration assuring lawmakers that the immediate infusion of $1 billion in disaster money wasn't needed to avoid a cutoff this week, Senate leaders moved quickly Monday to jettison the money from a pending Democratic measure and instead pass bare-bones legislation to avert a government shutdown at week's end.
That measure, approved by the Senate on a 79-12 vote, would keep the government running until mid-November.
The House appears likely to endorse that measure next week when it returns from a weeklong recess. In the meantime, a one-week stopgap measure needed to avoid a government shutdown at midnight Friday appears likely to be adopted in a sparsely attended session Thursday. The weeklong measure would provide a $2.7 billion infusion of disaster money that would make sure federal help continues to flow to victims of Hurricane Irene and other recent disasters.
The lowest-common-denominator solution came after Republicans stymied efforts by Senate Democrats for a $6.9 billion disaster aid package. House Republicans instead insisted on a $3.7 billion measure — with $1 billion of the most urgently needed money "paid for" with cuts to clean energy programs important to Democrats.
After pushing for weeks for a higher disaster aid figure, Senate Democrats instead fought their last battle to make sure the energy programs emerged uncut. But the casualty was $1 billion in disaster relief supported by Republicans and Democrats alike.
The breakthrough of sorts came after the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicated Monday it had enough money for disaster relief efforts through Friday. That disclosure allowed lawmakers to move to the lower disaster aid figure and allow both sides to save face.
The disaster aid debate will be revisited when Congress passes a massive spending bill later this year. Under the terms of last month's budget pact, up to $11.3 billion in disaster aid could be added to the budget without having to be offset with spending cuts.
Senate Democrats declared victory despite coming up empty-handed in their battle for more disaster aid. Instead, they crowed over preventing cuts to an Energy Department loan program for automobile manufacturers that they credit with creating jobs.
"We rejected the idea that we should be forced to choose between American jobs and disaster relief," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Reid said White House Budget chief Jacob Lew had assured him there's enough money in FEMA's disaster pipeline to carry through the week.
There was no immediate comment from House GOP leaders, although their approval for the measure seemed a mere formality after the party's Senate leader agreed to it.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Republicans had stood against Democratic efforts to use deficit spending to pay for the disaster aid.
While it was unclear precisely how long FEMA's remaining funds would last, one official said the agency began conserving funds last month as Hurricane Irene approached the U.S. mainland, prioritizing its aid to help individual disaster victims and pay states and local governments for immediate needs, such as removing debris and building sandbag barricades.
Funding of $450 million has been put on hold for longer-term needs such as reconstruction of damaged roads, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing lack of authority to discuss the matter publicly. In addition, the agency has been able to reclaim unused money from past disasters, the official said.